Saturday, April 29, 2023

Craig Carter on John Calvin

Another Christian Platonist, John Calvin, makes a very similar point in the opening lines of his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” (Acts 17: 28). For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God.

Here we see the linking of the true knowledge of ourselves with the true knowledge of God; advance in one brings advance in the other, while mistakes in one cause mistakes in the other. Calvin sees our being as subsisting in God, and contemplation of ourselves occasions thoughts of God; for the entire Great Tradition, this explains why no human being can ever be neutral with regard to God, oceans of Enlightenment sophistry notwithstanding.

[Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 134-5]

Craig Carter is one of the prime architects of the entrance of Platonism into Evangelical and Reformed circles, mediating the false retreival of history through the Roman Catholic ressourcement, as mediated through radical orthodoxy proponents like John Millbank. Whatever the merits of his ressourcement project or lack thereof, a disturbing pattern can be seen in his reading of historical sources. One such reading can be seen in how Carter reads the Institues of John Calvin.

In pages 134-5 of his book on reading the Scriptures, Carter cited John Calvin to promote his vision of "Christian Patonism." Citing the first part of the Institutes where Calvin argued that to know ourselves and to know God are two intricately connected things (Institues, 1.1), Carter latches onto one part of Calvin's sentence, to claim that John Calvin teaches that "our being [subsists] in God, and contemplation of ourselves occasions thoughts of God." In context, Calvin was making the statement that we know from God's gifts that our being subsists because of the one God. Notice that "subsistence in the one God" does not necessarily mean "our being subsists in the one God." The former merely state that our being depends on God for its subsistence, without stating how this dependence relation works. Carter however reads Calvin as a Platonist, and therefore excludes any other type of dependence relationship man has with God.

We can see immediately that Carter's manner of interpreting historical sources is to interpret the "good sources" as Platonists, rather than let the historical sources interpret themselves. That is most certainly not the way to actually interpret historical sources. Whether Calvin is a Platonist or not is irrelevant for the topic at hand, because firstly there is no such thing as one type of "Platonist," so even if it were granted that Calvin was a "Platonist" in some aspects, it does not mean he is a "Platonist" in certain other aspects. Secondly, one must focus on the context and what Calvin was trying to convey in 1.1 of his Institutes. The text builds towards a thesis, certain conclusions, and that is the "authorial intent" of the passage. Even if Calvin were a Platonist on the issue of the "subsistence" of the soul, this is most certainly not what he was driving at in 1.1 of his Institutes, which is focused on the knowedge of God and driving home our dependence upon Him for our very being, not on the Platonic view of being (whichever version Carter has in mind; probably the Christian Neo-Platonic view of being).

Carter's hermeneutics on historical sources in the case of John Calvin is flawed, and we look at this source from John Calvin because it has been read and studied so many times, and this is the first time I have read anyone try to claim that Calvin is teaching a Christian Neo-Platonic ontology in this passage. Carter's manner of reading texts is disturbing, but probably perfectly in line with the ressourcement's way of interpreting historical sources, as texts addressing ecclesiastical concerns instead of historically-situated documents.

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